A Few Bright Moments in a Non-Stellar Week; Fashion

A flock of young and glossy designers managed to overcome the hype and celebrity circus of the New York shows to produce collections of elegance and ease.

The main lesson of last week’s shows in New York, usually a predictable kind of fashion town, is that nothing is as it seems nor as it should be. Often the effort seemed to be devoted not to the pursuit of what should be the essence of American fashion design -a lightness, an ease, a deliberate modernity -but to pretending that we were in another city altogether. Was there fussiness (often a Milan affliction)? A tendency to theatrics (sometimes seen in Paris)? And an obsession with newness that exposes a chronic lack of talent (an occasional London trait)? Tick, tick, tick. For whatever reason, only a few designers produced stellar collections.

It was also the week in which the celebrity circus seemed more out of control than ever. At Marc Jacobs’s show a complete unknown Hong Kong pop star garnered more attention than Uma Thurman simply by bursting in one minute before the show began. But whatever the case against New York’s habit of over-hype on and off the catwalks, it does possess a flock of young but glossy designers all of whom crucially refuse to capitulate to outmoded notions of what a woman should look like. Most noteworthy are Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who are the duo Proenza Schouler, Zac Posen and Behnaz Sarafpour. It is in their hands that old trends such as the ones which arose this week -puffball/bulb-shaped skirts, all things military -work best, probably because, unlike more established designers, they have the freedom to take risks. Proenza Schouler again found a way to convey a newness, and did so by suggesting combinations that are theoretically tricky: a stiff corset with a cotton skirt, for instance, or a sheer camisole with heavy trousers.

There were also some graphic prints that recalled an Art Deco-ish modernism but looked fresh next to the old-school masculine materials. Sarafpour has a complex but instinctive sense of what femininity means (and doesn’t mean) now. Her best pieces this time were those that seem to have infinite permutations of possibility on anyone, any time: cropped jackets, metallic-trimmed and made to be worn open, over puffy skirts and slouchy trousers, say. She knows when to close the lid quietly: there might be a heavily encrusted vest, but she will pair it with nothing more elaborate than a white cotton T-shirt. That, you might say, is a styling skill, not a designing one, but increasingly the lines seem to be blurred and if it gives us ideas as to how to dress with her clothes and others, well, why not?

Posen, still young, precocious and talented enough to be described as a prodigy, sometimes gets carried away by his imagination. His collection last week was the first since he formed a financial partnership with P. Diddy, who made it part of the empire that includes his own label, Sean John, and by the look of things, the move has been beneficial to everybody. Posen’s tendency to veer off into elaborate reminiscences about eras way before he was born (and the camp glamour of idols back then) was reined in and, for the first time, his zeal to sparkle did not overwhelm him.

There were the billowing floor-length Hollywood gowns he excels at, but there were also fantastic cropped jackets, culottes with the perfect swagger (not too loose, not too tight) and simple strapless dresses. The killer pleating – at the back of some of the jackets and across the whole of several dresses was a reminder that he does have an anachronistic super-skill with the scissors.

When Jacobs takes risks, as he did last week, he is leant on heavily: instant and obvious blockbusters are expected of him, not oddities that take a while to digest. It was a brave, imaginative collection, but the problem lay with the size of the chasm between the odd pieces (the long, weighty skirts, the cartoonish cavernous floral smocks) and the wearable, lovely ones (the loose jackets in wool or astrakhan, the satin and mesh dresses). The themes of awkward layers and heavy shapes arose again in Marc, the Marc Jacobs younger line. This time it had greater charm and felt less contrived -perhaps because it’s such an intrinsically youthful look.

At Narciso Rodriguez and Calvin Klein a good dose of the new would not have gone astray. Rodriguez is surer than ever in the stark simplicity that he peddles, but he is so sure that it is starting to look fetishistic. As feats of tailoring, almost every piece was flawless, but that is not enough. An otherwise great herringbone coat, for instance, took on the air of a dodgy mail-order item with its two postbox slits above the breasts. The evening dresses, on the other hand, were fluid and uncontrived; if some of their warmth could blow on to the tailoring, Rodriguez would score.

Francisco Costa has kept the established Calvin Klein vocabulary, with its clean lines and whispery neutral tones, but the appeal is not as strong as it once was.

What used to look appealingly austere is now in danger of looking bland, though there were several examples that proved that Costa could enliven things if he pushed a bit harder: the puffball skirts, elsewhere clumsily done, were perfectly fluffy under Costa.

Roland Mouret’s tweed dresses and slim pencil suits are beautiful, to be sure, and his collection was his most consistent and cohesive yet. But it’s hard not to wonder about the viability of skirts that stretch tight to mid-calf, creating a hobble in the wearer’s walk, because while the cut was immaculate, it was tailored to within a close slice of the flesh. The coats were not so dangerous and stood out, from a matt-black trenchcoat with extra-wide belt to a teal wool draped affair and the washed leather pea-coats.

Beyond the tricky tightness, it was the Paris-born, London-based Mouret who achieved what every designer in New York should: he gave more credence to the place of simple elegance and ease in women’s lives than to giddy, fusty nostalgia.

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